Friday, 20 July 2012

Beautiful Chaos written by Gary Russell

Plot: The Doctor, Donna and the rest of the Noble clan take on the evil Mandragora intelligence which has changed its mind about humanity…

Mockney Dude: ‘Last time we had a chat I sent you into darkness. Remember that?’ When the Doctor had lost Donna he had looked so haunted, so lost and so old. The eyes of an old man trapped in a ridiculously young body. So miserable and alone. The Doctor has learnt that people don’t like getting hints about their future (is that a reference to the eighth Doctor?). Spoilers, as someone once said. Food was nice but a good mystery was much better. The Doctor is ill at ease with domesticity at the best of times. Is his style geek chic or scruffy Arthur? Donna opts for the latter. Jackie he had worn down through sheer charm (once he had regenerated) and Francine through her daughters faith in him. Once the Doctor might have used Netty with less conscience. The Doctor and Wilf in the garden laughing about his adventures is a wonderful image. Without Donna to bring him back here was there a guarantee that the Doctor would save the Earth next time? ‘Everywhere we go we make a difference, we put things right, we make things happier. That’s what the Doctor is all about. He finds a way for the universe to make sense.’ 

Tempestuous Temp: Gary Russell thanks Russell T Davies in his acknowledgments for his help with fleshing out the Noble family and his input is really felt simply because Donna, Wilf and Sylvia all feel so authentic. There is no effort in conjuring Catherine Tate, Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King up but this much more than just a description of their features and mannerisms. It’s a book that tries (and succeeds) in getting in touch with what makes these characters tick, how they function as a family and how they have had to handled so much grief over the last couple of years. There are a few occasions where the book feels as though it is a little too celebratory when it comes to Donna but for once its okay for Russell to enthuse like an exploding Catherine wheel because as far as Donna is concerned there is a great deal to celebrate. The tragedy of Donna is really highlighted in this book, that the old, selfish Donna has gone because of her travels with the Doctor but forced back into existence after the events of Journey’s End. Donna Noble is Queen of the ‘Oi’s!’ The Doctor and Donna played a game, a game of two equals who’d gone through so much together and played instinctively with each other because of it. It was all about familiarity and friendship and fun. Before she met the Doctor Donna would always put herself first but she had learnt so much and wanted to go back and help her mum on the anniversary of her dads death. Donna would loved to say that her bitterness and resentment was because of her dads death but the truth was Sylvia had always been with her daughter and rarely hid it. And Donna didn’t understand why. Donna and Sylvia loved each other. She just wasn’t entirely sure they liked each other. It’s a universal truth amongst family members that Russell capitalises on really well here. When did the idea of coming home fill Donna with such dread? Was this the downside of travelling with the Doctor? That normality was now alien? Now Wilf could see what a brave, brilliant woman Donna had becomes he loved her even more. She admits that she misses her father and Sylvia holds her. Remember when Rose went to pieces when she saw the future of the Doctor’s companions in School Reunion? Donna is given the same treatment here and instead of falling to pieces she tells Madame Delphi that she lives in the here and now. Travelling with the Doctor, Donna finally thinks she’s doing the right thing. She feels alive.

The Cribbins: ‘Come back soon, Doctor. Not just when we need you. Pop in for a cuppa one day…’ The rain always reminds Wilf of the sad, awful day that the Doctor brought Donna home. He enjoys looking up at the stars at the planets that were still there because of his Donna. He felt insignificant in comparison to the Doctor but that didn’t matter because the honour had been knowing him. Geoff’s death brought back memories of his wife’s death but he soldiered on making arrangements and supporting the others. When did Wilf get so old? What happened to that naughty old man who used to take Donna for a spin and she her off to his paratrooper mates? Wilf wanted to prove that he was independent, strong and about 20 years younger than he was! He likes to look and imagine and dream. There is a real sadness to Wilf knowing that he will lose Netty to Alzheimer’s and his quiet hope that the Doctor will be able to provide some medicine from the future to cure her.  You can just imagine Bernard Cribbins playing the climactic scenes of Netty being possessed by Mandragora and Wilf having his heart ripped out. It would be heartbreaking, utterly manipulative (the Doctor brought her along just to give the climax some sentiment?) but still very poignant. Donna offers to stay and be with her Gramps but he, selfless as ever, tells her to get out there with the man she loves and enjoy the life he could never have.

Moody Mare: For all the good work that is done with Donna and Wilf that is nothing compared to the depth that Russell brings to Sylvia. Over the course of Beautiful Chaos Russell takes this aggressive Jackie Tyler clone and turns her into a full bloodied character that is trying to hold her family together with her bare hands. There’s a moment where Netty gives a speech about Sylvia after she has been viciously rude to Wilf’s friend that is very useful because it is wonderful to see from an outsiders point of view how much Sylvia is tryingSylvia thinks that the Doctor brings monsters in his wake. Sylvia had been prepared for Geoff’s death but after 38 years of marriage it haunted her like nothing else. They had only been at the new house for 3 months when Geoff died and the whole reason they had moved was to provide him with new challenges. Talking about anything with Sylvia Noble was rarely a positive experience. She doesn’t like people being too open and honest – ‘those bleeding hearts who wear their hearts on their sleeves!’ Mothers have an in-built guilt trip that forbade you from saying the things you want to say to them. She desperately needed to cry at her husbands passing but her attitude to bleeding hearts meant she could never do that. In a touching (and unexpected) outburst Sylvia admits that she doesn’t know if Donna’s disappearances are the last she is going to see of her and that she has images of a policeman turning up on her doorstep to tell her that she is dead just like they did with Geoff. The moment when they suddenly drop all the pretence and cry in each others arms almost made me shed a tear. She’s not selfish, she’s worked hard and built a life and always tried to do the best by her daughter. She tolerates the Doctor for Donna’s sake just as she tolerates Netty for Wilf’s sake. She wants Netty to move in and be a part of the family for Wilf’s sake but Netty refuses saying that they are not prepared for how difficult it will be when she loses her mind completely.

Great Ideas: So much sadness in the Noble household over the last couple of years and so much emotional gold for Gary Russell to mine. Revenge on the Doctor after 500 years is a good clue about the villains identity early in the book. Wilf has discovered a new star which has been named after him. The stars are aligning to form a malevolent, smiling face. A column of light strikes London and the infected people heads towards it, hypnotised by its majesty. When the Doctor earthed Mandragora it got into the land, the water and ultimately the people by attaching itself to DNA. Transferring from generation to generation, the Helix now has a willing army. Mandragora has realised there is no stopping the human race flooding to the stars and building empires and colonies until the end of time. It wants a part of that action and plans to infect humanity and help to push their advancement forwards. Spreading Mandragora as the human race infects the corners of the universe like a plague. That’s actually a pretty solid reversal of The Masque of Mandragora and holds a lot of weight. Dara Morgan = Mandragora! Am I the only idiot that didn’t spot that? He was chosen at the lowest point in his life and offered power and riches. Callum is killed by the woman he once loved – his ascension to power is well catalogued and his downfall is one of pure ignominy. The climax comes down to an old man trying to hold on to the woman he loves and how can you fail to be moved by that? The unusually long coda marks this out as something a bit different. The Doctor pointing out that there is no miracle cure to Netty’s condition is exactly the statement e book needed to make. Imagine how awful it would have been had the story ended with a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s? Instead this feels very real.

Embarrassing Bits:
  • Initially I quite liked how all of the characters we given a decent bit of background. It felt like a refreshing change for the NSAs to include a wealth of characters who felt like real people with dreams and a history. However the book repeats the trick again and again right down to the most insignificant character to a point where this is focussed on to the detriment of the (slight) plot. Points of populating your book with fleshed out characters, minus points for regurgitating their life history in one great heave of exposition when their main purpose is to be a corpse.
  • Russell occasionally adopts an omnipresent narrator which is very jarring after the intimate character scenes from Donna or Wilf’s POV because I kept wondering who was thinking these thoughts…
  • Ben is the obligatory gay character and his inclusion is utterly cringe-inducing. His ‘sorry, you lose…’ to Jayne adds nothing to the story and feels like it is trying to be modern for moderns sakes.
  • Although his handling of the Noble clan is superb generally he can get a little too enthusiastic at times – sometimes a little restraint can be more effective and you don’t have to be cute all the time.
  • Russell has great fun comparing the events of this book to the importance of the Kennedy assassination. Delusions of grandeur much?
  • ‘It was like a slow motion moment in a movie’ – under any circumstances that is an appalling descriptive term. It sounds like it was written by a five year old.
  • Killing off all the presenters of Big Brother? Really? Its not a show that I have ever watched but this seems like tedious point scoring with the novels audience to me. This mention just jars because its not really connected to anything, its just the author trying to be smart and falling flat on his face.
  • Joe! It wouldn’t be an NSA without the obligatory child character!
  • Splitting the story into days is a nice idea in theory but makes finding a point to stop the book if you want a quick ten minute read before bed nigh on impossible.
  • Why does Madame Delphi talk like such a smart arse?
  • Caitlin’s crisis of faith is so sudden its deeply unconvincing. Its what the plot needs her to do rather than any kind of natural character progression.
  • As affecting as the Wilf side of the climax is (and it really is), Mandragora ultimately proves to be a bit rubbish. All those centuries of scheming and growing to be defeated that easily?
  • ‘A few days later, and mankind, as it always did, coped and moved on…’ – Russell as good as admits that his plot was just a bit of useless fluff to hang the more personal Noble drama on!

Funny Bits: The image of Donna glammed up and having to escape from danger on a push bike made me chuckle. You could imagine Tate playing that for every laugh she could get! ‘Never cracks a noble tart, how about a good night sweet Donna?’ earned Neal Bailey a clump in the nuts when he took Donna on a date!

Notes: Nice mention of Park Vale School (SJA). Oddly considering this is a Gary Russell book (even though it is scaled back there is still a fair bit of continuity – perhaps that’s why he didn’t write for the eighth Doctor range post amnesia because he couldn’t write a novel without including aspects of the past?) he doesn’t reference the SJA adventure The Secrets of the Stars of which there is a great deal of similarities (including the obvious use of Mandragora in that episode despite it never being named). Garrazone (Big Finish stories such as The Sword of Orion were set there). The Tycho Project (SJA – The Last Sontaran). There is something of Polly in Miss Oladini, a temporary administrator who gets caught up in the extraordinary and brainwashed. The plot is basically a cross between the SJA stories Secrets of the Stars (Mandragora) and The Man Who Never Was (SERFboard/MTEK) although one wasn’t written yet so that's not really fair...although it does make me wonder if this inspired Gareth Roberts (frankly superior) take on the subject. 

Result: I spent the majority of this book swinging from one emotional to another, from one extreme to another, from wiping away tears with the poignancy of the characterisation to laughing at the ineptitude of the plotting. Russell is never going to be the worlds best writer but (as with Mel in Business Unusual and Evelyn in Instruments of Darkness) if he really likes a character he will go the extra mile to bring them to life with real gusto and the characterisation transcends his often, barely perceptible, plots. Beautiful Chaos is littered with Gary Russell’s usual faults as a writer; its over indulgent, continuity obsessed and features prose that is so enthusiastic the word restraint is a forgotten concept…and yet his handling of the Noble clan is exceptional and offers a glimpse of the character writer he could be if he calmed things down a bit. His touching treatment of Donna, Wilf, Sylvia and Netty elevates this considerably and there is a great deal of development for each of them, especially Sylvia who has never been handled so sympathetically. Plus the way Alzheimer’s is handled deserves real credit, especially for not searching for an easy answer at the climax. Massively flawed but beautifully characterised and ultimately very touching, Beautiful Chaos is Gary Russell’s greatest accomplishment in prose to date: 8/10

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Eight Doctors written by Terrance Dicks

Plot: Following on directly from the TV Movie the Eighth Doctor falls foul to one last trap left by the Master that leaves him amnesiac. To regain his memories he must pop through time and meet his previous selves and in doing so he gets involved in An Unearthly Child, The War Games, The Sea Devils, The Daemons, State of Decay, The Five Doctors and The Trial of a Timelord. All in a days work really.

Top Doc: Unfortunately the Doctor spends most of the book amnesiac or as a collection of certain memories and thus displays little character outside of the generic ‘Doctor’ image that Terrance knows so well. On the plus side, this book also contains nine other Doctors (there are two sixth Doctors and the Valeyard) which Uncle Terrance has been writing for for far too long now to get wrong. His bombastic sixth Doctor is a particular triumph and considering how hard he is to capture in print the season eighteen fourth Doctor is word perfect too.

Friend or foe: I cannot imagine what possessed whoever was editing the books at the time to introduce Sam Jones in this fashion? Having to live up to a legacy left by New Ace (who as much as I didn’t like her she certainly made an impact), Benny (rock on!), Chris (a total wet blanket but again memorable for his grief following Roz’s death) and Roz (wasted but a fine companion who deserved a longer run) would be intimidating enough but being shoehorned into one of vaguest books Doctor Who history like a spare part was not the way forward. Its no wonder everybody was against her if this was their first glimpse of the girl. She jogs every morning and hates drugs but is totally unfazed by the interior dimensions of the TARDIS. She’s totally faceless here and a complete irrelevance to the main plot. It would have made much more sense to have had her join in Vampire Science and give her Carolyn’s role in that story. Oh well.

Foreshadowing: It might have been unintentional but the mention of the Third Doctor’s death on Metabelis Three will be a vital plot point in Interference. Flavia is President of Gallifrey…what happened to Romana? Old town is referred to which will be followed up in The Infinity Doctors. And indeed the Master’s presence in the TARDIS will be forgotten from this book onwards right up until the very last Eighth Doctor book, The Gallifrey Chronicles. The Vampires of the State of Decay segment will be followed up in the very next book.

Twists: The entire book! Who could dare to conjure up such a book? One which would encompass so much Doctor Who history? That would have the third Doctor threaten to murder himself! That would allow the Eighth Doctor to give his fourth incarnation a blood transplant! To follow up on several Doctor Who stories with mini-adventures (State of Decay, The Daemons, The Sea Devils and The Five Doctors). The writer of this book is either very brave or inexplicably stupid.

Funny bits: I was roaring with laughter throughout, sorry. It’s such implausible twaddle! But the moment of absolute genius has to come when the Time Lord Ryoth beams a Drashig to the Eye of Orion to kill the Doctor only to have it beamed back and eat him. Hilarious stuff! You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried! Oh and the sixth Doctor’s insatiable hunger is also worth a chuckle.

Embarrassing bits: Oh gee I think I covered that in the last two columns. This is clearly the work of a deranged mind…only somebody who is very sure of their talent would even attempt to write a book that contains ten Doctors, four Masters, Susan, Ian, Barbara, Jaime, Zoe, Jo, the Brig, Romana, Tegan, Turlough, Mel, Flavia, Spandrell, Borusa, Engin, Rassilon, a Raston Warrior Robot, Sontarans, Giant Spiders, loads of TARDISes, Gallifrey, the Eye of Orion, the Trial ship, Metabelis Three, etc, etc…and try and write a coherent plot around it. Looking at it this way it’s rather more embarrassing for the writer and editor than us. I think I was most embarrassed whilst I was reading the first thirty pages which consists of Terrance attempting to wipe away what he considers to be the terrible mistakes of the TV Movie and get back to good old traditional Doctor Who. And a cringe-worthy lecture on crack cocaine…say no drugs kiddies!

Result: Well you’ve got two choices. Hurl the book at the nearest wall after fifty odd pages or accept that it is total madness and enjoy it on that level. As the book develops it ties itself up in knots, piles implausibility on top of embarrassment until I was at a loss at how much lower Terrance could sink. As an introduction to the eighth Doctor it sucks because we learn nothing new about him and instead churn up his previous selves for what feels like a particularly retarded anniversary party. For those initiated newcomers who watched the TV Movie this is a nightmare of continuity wrapped up in some astonishingly weak prose (which is so lacking in description or nuance that it could be arrested for being described as such by the trades description act). A garbled, incomprehensible mess but surprisingly fun if you’re in the mood (the same way Time and the Rani, Warmonger and Zagreus are fun if you’re in the right mood), nonetheless as a novel it has to rank as one of the least interesting and most desperate entries in the entire range. You’re not going to appeal to the fans of the New Adventures who are used to something a lot more sophisticated than this and you’re not going to appeal to anybody who is familiar with the English language and simply wants a good read either. The Eighth Doctor Adventures really couldn’t have gotten off on a worse footing: 2/10

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Night of the Humans written by David Llewellyn

Plot: The Doctor and Amy are trapped on the Gyre and fighting for their lives as a savage tribe of humans launch an all out attack on the Sittuun…

Nutty Professor: ‘He is a good man, better than any of us, and it broke his heart…’ Llewellyn is not interested in merely having the Doctor prance about making witty asides, popping about in his own timeline and breaking rules of time to tie up plots and generally acting like a bit of a smart mouth buffoon but instead wants to take him to a genuinely dark place where his efforts to save the day don’t always go rewarded. Steven Moffatt take note, this is how it is supposed to be done. The way that the 11th Doctor is pushed to the edge in a dramatic situation reminded me very strongly of the events of The Waters of Mars and there is that similar feeling of desperation. You get the feeling that the Doctor has totally bought into the myth surrounding him and that he can do anything. Boy is he about to be proven wrong. If there is a mystery behind the TARDIS door then the Doctor is bound to open no matter how much Amy objects. The Doctor has faced many dangers before, found himself in so many situations in which there seemed to be no way out. In his many lives he had fallen great heights and been shot. He had lost a hand and grown one back. Had seen the end of the universe and lived to tell the tale. But acid would rule out regeneration. Acid would be final. Its so unlike the Doctor to think defeatist thoughts like this I was completely gripped. The Doctor preparing himself for death makes this danger suddenly feel very real. The last time the Doctor saw Slipstream he was behind bars and he was the one that put him there. The book is vague about which Doctor watched him go down but it was ‘many regenerations ago’ so take your pick. The Doctor tries in vain to convince the humans to leave the Gyre but they are blinded by their ignorance and their faith. For once he simply cannot get through to them and many women and children are going to die as a result. Amy had never seen him like this – pale and drawn and so much older, his boyish charm nowhere to be seen. There are no last minute solutions this time. She can do nothing but reach out and hold his hand and he finds some small comfort in that. The Doctor has built himself up as a mythic figure that can do anything and he simply crumples when he fails. He is surprised, sad and deeply moved when Amy values his life more than her own. If leaving the humans to meet the fate they have chosen was a loss, then having Amy (the little girl with the monster in her wall) beside him took some of the pain out of losing. Getting back to the TARDIS has never felt like such an incredible relief. Slipstream describes the Doctor as ‘irritatingly astute.’ The Mymon Key is the last remnant of the Hexion Geldmonger civilisation and with it the Doctor could be invincible. He could bring his own species back. The key to the universe is too powerful for anyone to own and he tosses it into the acid swamp as so much rubbish. As the bomb explodes the Doctor watches a world being destroyed. Again. Two civilisations erased from history on the surface. For one who is so young he has the air of somebody who has seen the universe several times over. ‘You’re a good man, Doctor and you did everything you could’ are kind words but they barely impact.

Scots Tart: A truly responsible take on Amy Pond and one of her best showings in print, this is so much better than Justin Richards’ slight take on the character in Apollo 23 its actually a little embarrassing for the editor and it genuinely feels as though it takes place in the early run of season five where Amy is finding her feet in this time travelling lark. Llewellyn grasps hold of what little we know about Amy and wrings it for every drop of emotion that he can and whilst I maintain that she will never be one of the more riveting companions in print here is proof that she can at least be made to work if you push her to the limit. She doesn’t like being called Pond or Amelia. Fussy cow. Captured by the Sittuun on an alien planetoid, Amy is terrified for once rather than cocky. It makes her feel much more real. After hearing insults all of her life about redheads, Scots and women Amy never thought she would ever have to feel offended on behalf of her species. She struggled with the scale of how far away the Earth is in both miles and years. If there was one thing she has learnt about the future, it was that it was nothing like people said it was going to be. When she jumps to her possible death Amy thinks of home, the Doctor and the dress she will never wear. If Amy dies here everyone will think she’s run off to Thailand or something and she wont exists for her loved ones for another 250,000 years. How could her life have taken such a diversion that was leaping over a cavernous pit of monsters onto a spacecraft on an alien world in the distant future? Only when she is out of danger and can relax does Amy break down. She wants to rescue the Doctor because he is her friend but he is also her only way home. There’s a gorgeous relationship the builds between Amy and Charlie as she tries to understand him and the prejudice of his people against humans. Through her Charlie has an example that they aren’t all as racist as his father thinks. Drama was definitely Amy’s best subject at school, she was a natural. She teases the Doctor that she has rescued him for a change and that he is jealous of her friendship with Charlie. There was no way that Amy was leaving without the Doctor. Not after waiting 14 years for him to come back for her. Amy knows she has to go home sooner or later. She’s got a big day tomorrow and she can’t keep putting it off. After the events of this book Amy starts to wonder if all humanity if good for is being horrible to each other until Charlie plays her some music and reminds her of the beauty her species can create.

Great Ideas: I always applaud the books when they try something visually interesting and the emergency log of the crashed ship gets us off on an intriguing footing. The idea of the TARDIS bouncing off of speed bumps in space really made me smile as did the distress beacon that travels in time so that a rescue mission can be organised before the crash has taken place! The Gyre is such a fantastic location and it is described in exquisite detail. Its an endless scrapyard as far as the eye can see with a flaming comet filling the sky and heading towards the planetoid. Shipwrecks and refuse are brought together by the gravitational force of the five nearest stars. If Schuler Khan hits the Gyre it will send chunks of debris the size of cities spinning off towards the twelve inhabited worlds of the system. The Sittuun want to detonate a nanobomb in the upper atmosphere and neutralise the comets threat, literally eating away the Gyre so it can pass harmlessly through. Within seconds the Gyre will be a mist of atoms. There’s a great lake of acid with a giant rusted exhaust pipe as a bridge. The Sollogs live in the acid; fat slimy slugs with long spindly legs and gaping maws that attack anybody that tries to pass over. Its nice to see the books trying to pull off something this disgusting that a TV budget could never pull off. There is a brilliant role reversal where you think the Doctor has been saved by the humans from the aliens but they in fact turn out to be the aggressors. The human settlement is built from refuse; towers, shelters and huts all lit up by burning torches. Ancient, run down and rusted; stinking of smoke and rotting food. Ancient adverts for sportswear and soft drinks looking weathered an otherworldly, as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Roman mosaics. Whilst there are shades of The Face of Evil with the human settlement being constructed around the remains of the crashed human ship many generations ago this is a much more fulsomely realised, insidious location. The humans are described as ‘superstitious, unpredictable and violent…scared of absolutely everything.’ There’s definitely something in that. Dirk Slipstream’s rocket ship lands and is described as a glittering diamond in a mound of coal. I think Llewellyn is playing games with his audience because Dirk Slipstream screams of Zap Brannigan from Futurama down to his look (in fact with Gobocorp being a delivery company there is more than a touch of a dark, skewered version of Futurama here) and diction and yet I think this deliberate so we think he is going to be as inept and as cuddly as the cartoony character. Instead he is completely amoral, murderous and lacking any kind of moral sense. And he hides it all behind a perfect smile. There’s a great action set piece when the pipe breaks in two and Achmed falls to his death and Amy hangs onto the vines for her life and Slipstream simply waves goodbye to her grisly fate in the pit of Sollogs. The relationship with Heeva and Jamal is nicely handled and is all the more impressive because it isn’t necessary to tell this story but makes for a poignant background detail that gives these character and extra touch of realism. They clutched hold of each other in this situation of crisis but now Jamal is going home to his wife and Heeva has to pretend nothing ever happened. Slipstream was responsible for the Belaform diamond heist where he crashed a passenger ship into the diamond depository and killed 600 people. He was sentenced to 70,000 years imprisonment. Tying up one little mystery, Slipstream was the one that sent the distress signal that attracted the Doctor to the Gyre. Wars have been fought over the Mymon Key; it is an unlimited energy source, drawing its power from gravitational force. It can drive a ship through a black hole and be used to tear the fabric of the universe apart. Slipstream is quite mad, planning on using the Mymon Key to turn the sun into a black hole unless he gets 10% of the all the profits from the industries on Sol 1. ‘The humans are coming…’ – what a genuinely ominous threat humanity is in this book. The dark mass of humans caked in clown make up tearing across the desert of glass on a murderous journey is an unforgettable image. The Sittuun under attack by laughing, insane humans and the destructive comet fragments reveals a level of terror that is rare in the books these days. The whole Gobo/clown/western religion is so ridiculous but because the humans (and the author) take it so seriously it transcends that and becomes something very dark and malignant. With the burning fragments raining from the sky and causing such devastating earthquakes and craters it feels like Armageddon has arrived. Slipstream’s greed is what gets him killed and the Doctor doesn’t show a flicker of remorse.

Result: After The Taking of Chelsea 426 (a fun but unremarkable book) I would have never thought that there was a novel quite this gripping to come from David Llewellyn but he has defied all expectations with this nourishing read. The Gyre is a superbly thought through and vivid location that comes across as very alien and packed with dangerous detail. Llewellyn stacks up the dangers for the Doctor and Amy (both superbly written for) to face from the nest of dark hearted humans, the disgustingly realised Sollogs, Slipstream and his absence of morality to the comet that is screaming through space towards the Gyre and the bomb that will destroy it. Despite the fact that this is a tie in novel by the end of the book the location is so oppressive you might wonder if our heroes are going to escape with their lives. The prose is visual, dynamic and conveys a real sense of jeopardy. At first Dirk Slipstream comes across as a superfluous element but before the book is over he has become the most vivid of characters and the most dangerously unpredictable one. Night of the Humans isn’t trying to be too clever or cute, its simply a gripping piece of writing that wants to captivate you from beginning to end and it succeeds admirably. The ending is particularly memorable, with the Doctor tragically failing to save lives but with a hint of optimism in the poignant coda. Powerful and unexpected: 9/10

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Peacemaker by James Swallow

Plot: Standby for a rootin’ tootin’ adventure in the Wild West with dusky babe Martha Jones and her sonic slinging, fancy talking companion the Doctor! They’ll be parties, gunfights and plenty of riding through the desert and alien weapons that threaten to destroy the Earth in its infancy…

Mockney Dude: I really don’t understand the comments of people who say that the tenth Doctor is ill characterised in these books. Read on to hear some top notch characterisation of one the most subversive and aggressive of incarnations…

The Doctor had a way about him as if he took every piece of sadness in the universe personally and like he had the sole responsibility to banish such things. His open manner is infectious and his intelligence stimulating. He is so fascinated by anything out of the ordinary sometimes he needed reminding that normal people are caught up in it. ‘We just help the ones we can’ – the Doctor and Martha make an excellent life saving team. In chaos the Doctor became the eye of the storm. He held a sheriff’s badge once and it brought him nothing but trouble. He requires a gun belt so he can brandish his sonic! The Doctor can make a good time out of anything, never mind if it was terrifying as well. Usually it takes at least 3 minutes for people to want to kill the Doctor. He is a Time Lord and moves between the ticks of a clock. He is described as Rides in Night, Brother of Coyote and the man who defeated the Bad Wolf. A legend, a story for young braves. After Martha is shot he is a nightmare storm, absolutely furious as he approaches the long riders. ‘Like knows like Doctor. I can smell the blood on you. I can hear the echo of war that clings to your coattails. Such dark glory. I envy you.’ The Doctor’s mood darkens when the Clades brandish him a murderer. On another day he might have turned his back and let Nathan kill Godlove. When Martha is at the very edge of her life the Doctor can see the sheer weight of blame in Francine’s eyes. Once it is inside the Doctor’s mind it forces him to see Rose, Mickey, K.9, Captain Jack and Sarah Jane dying in wastelands of fusion bombs. He was willing to do a terrible deed, to destroy so much to defeat a terrible enemy. When the Clade ask him to merge with them and dangle the carrot of hunting down every last Dalek and erasing them from existence, he wants to agree. He hates himself for that. If he had been one with the Clade the Daleks would be gone and the Time Lords would have survived, Rose would still be with him and the Cybermen would be nothing but scrap metal. The Doctor knows violence, he knows anger only breeds more anger. The Doctor can think beyond four dimensions and he locks the Clade weapon into a feedback loop. He doesn’t mess about, he drops a hill on top of them! With the Doctor around nothing will seem scary again.

Delicious Doctor: You will hard pressed to find a book with Martha written for more accomplished than Peacemaker. James Swallow simply gets her, the mild lust for the Doctor, her love of travelling and her ability to snap into action as a training medical student. Throughout she continually sparkles with wonderful observations and sneaky peeks at her family life and Swallow seems to enjoy really selling how accomplished this duo can be at their height. Whilst Donna will always be my favourite tenth doctor companion (and one of my favourite companions full stop) Swallow convinces that Martha was top dog here.

Martha slyly suggests that their movie is a date. When they were kids Martha, Leo and Tish always stuck on a western whilst Francine cooked a joint and made great roast potatoes. With her mum and dad they would eat during the last half  and thinking of them causes a tightness in her chest and a pang of homesickness. She feels cheerless that a creaky old western is the only way she can feel close to her family. Martha wonders when she will get blasé about time travel because it hasn’t happened yet. She wants to visit the Alamo, Deadwood, Tombstone and the gunfight at the OK Corral (‘Been there, done that’ the Doctor retorts). Martha studied smallpox in her training and remembers the victims scarred by lesions and blinded. Quack Doctors with made up cures make Martha quietly furious. At times the Doctor thinks he is in charge but that’s not how they work. Martha sighs with regret when she tells Jenny its ‘not like that’ with the Doctor. She thinks life challenges us and we should challenge it right back. Injured people are her priority. I love the moment when the Doctor makes Martha realise that prejudice can cut both ways. Martha sticks her cowboy hat at a jaunty angle and declares herself ‘very Madonna.’ Living on the outskirts of London’s sprawl all that country horsy stuff felt a million miles from the world she comes from. Martha recognises shock in Nathan, hiding bereavement behind a wall of anger. Martha feels sadness about her family knowing they are so far away but joy knowing they are waiting for her. Lately Martha has learnt a lot about courage, to be afraid and still face what terrifies you. Trying to be as bold as the Doctor, even for a moment, was never easy. Martha is shot and the pain is like a million times every broken bone, rotten tooth and gut sick agony all in a rush of hurt. She actually thinks am I going to die? Martha snogs the Doctor to bring him back to reality. Whenever she has a bad experience in the past Martha always called Tish but she’s not sure her sister would believe her anymore.

Great Ideas: White fire ripped into them turning their flesh into ashes – you know you are in for a well characterised book when two incidental characters jump of the page so well in the prologue. The planet Hollywood has its sign made out of ice and rock dust in orbit. The Doctor is taking Martha to the pictures where the chairs are intelligent and mould to your comfort zones. I love the idea that one of the films is the Starship Brilliant story! Smallpox has been cured in the Wild West? Nathan is one of the townsfolk who was struck with the pox and cured and now he is plagued by terrible dreams of a future war. I like the way Swallow makes you feel sympathy for the unlikable characters in this book, especially Sheriff Blaine who is shot dead after betraying the Doctor. There are small mentions of naongenes, New Earth, small moments of continuity that place this firmly in NuWho territory. The Clades are weapons that are independently intelligent and so advanced they are capable of conscious thought and action. They would hunt down and destroy their creators enemies without pity, remorse or pause. They are the pinnacle of biological engineering named the Peacemakers, the last resort. The peace that reined in the wake of weapons brought untold prosperity. The Clades watched and waited through peace time, silent and calculating. Without fire, blood and destruction they had no purpose. Peace was repulsive slow decay. They reactivated themselves and turned on their creators, it had been what they were made for. They don’t want power or wealth, just to destroy. There’s always a war going on somewhere and now the Clades exist as mercenaries. All they leave behind them is ashes and destruction. They have a limited regenerative ability built in – Godlove’s cure all. Side effects are fragments of the Clades battle reports from a million campaigns across the galaxy. The telepathic imprint of a never ending war. The Clades are insidious, Martha will die slowly unless they take them Godlove. Walking Crow’s sacrifice could have been like a hundred other scenes we have seen of this ilk but instead it is dignified, poignant. I love Martha’s mow-bile from Nathan’s point of view! The long riders tear a rattlesnake in half and eat the raw meat in silence. Like an angry child in a tantrum the Clades were not going to go quietly. They’d want to destroy something just because they could.

Funny Bits:
  • ‘Jules took a lot of convincing to cut out the stuff about the Silurians’ – the Doctor on Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea!
  • Professor Alvin Q Godlove’s Powerful Dispatulated Incontrovertible Panacea Potion! I would buy that medicine just because of the name! Although I am reliably informed by the Doctor that it tastes gross, proof that that is simply the case the universe over!
  • Martha calls her buck toothed horse Rose! Ahem…
  • Martha isn’t sure if the Doctor looks like Clint Eastwood or the Milky Bar kid!
  • The Doctor unleashes a torrent of technobabble – ‘Please do not speak in that manner. It causes pain in my head.’
  • When she is shot the Doctor thinks Martha is going to confess her love for him when she just wants to tell him where Godlove is!
  • Martha doesn’t leave dirty kilts everywhere unlike some people!

Result: The beating heart of the American Frontier is our stomping ground in this attractive tale, the Wild West in all its glory! What impressed me here was how confident and engaging the prose was, James Swallow is not a name I am familiar with but he writes a Doctor Who story with artful passion. His characterisation of the Doctor and Martha is peerless and both characters jump from the page as living breathing people. The Clade backstory is a little similar to that of the Daleks but its such a good story who actually gives a damn? I am not a huge western fan so the fact that Peacemaker appealed to me as much as it did was down to some nifty writing, an authentic location and a real sense of pace of danger. Lets see another from this accomplished writer please: 8/10

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Shining Darkness written by Mark Michalowski

Plot: The Doctor and Donna are separated from each other in Andromeda galaxy and caught in the middle of a race war…

Mockney Dude: ‘I’m the Doctor’ ‘That’s not a name, it’s a title’ ‘Well as long as I get the job done isn’t it enough?’ Splitting up the Doctor and Donna is a great idea because initially she gets to do all the Doctory bits with the villains and he gets to do all the Doctory bits with the good guys and then halfway through the book they get to swap places. It’s a chance to see both characters at their best amongst ally and enemy. The Doctor brought Donna to the Andromeda galaxy for the very reason that he was out of his depth, he wanted to take her somewhere where his ignorance matched hers. Donna wonders what the Doctor would do in her situation and ponders if he has ever sat any of his companions down and taught them ‘Breaking out of Locked Rooms for Beginners.’ He shows real compassion for Mother when she reveals about her shady past and the lengths she went to to escape it. Threatening Donna is the quickest way of ensuring that this is the Doctor’s fight. He’s rather attached to his head and is (fairly) certain that if it is cut off another one wont grow back. The Doctor knows that if you stop thinking of somebody as being like you then it means that you start treating them differently and that usually means treating them worse. He points out the one flaw in all megalomaniacs plans when they are trying to subjugate others: ‘When you’re done and look around you’ll find that the universe isn’t any better after all!’ The Doctor hates people who turn individuals into types. For one awful moment he genuinely thinks that Donna is dead.

Tempestuous Temp: I think its tragic that Donna only appeared in four Doctor Who novels (she was similarly neglected in the comic strip whereas Martha had a wealth of stories in both medias) but in a way I can almost understand why they chose this option rather than keeping her on because she’s almost too good in this format and practically overshadows the Doctor. Its fortunate that the Donna tetralogy came along when the NSAs where really picking their feet up and producing works that could easily sit side by side with the paperback ranges that preceded them and The Doctor Trap, Ghosts of India, Beautiful Chaos and Shining Darkness are all great reads with a great role for Donna. I find that the Doctors/companions that transfer most successfully into print are those that had an awful lot of personality on screen (the First, Third, Sixth and Tenth Doctors, Ian and Barbara, Jamie and Zoe, Leela, Romana and Peri work really well in the books) and the ones that tend interpret blandly are those whose performances were a little more subtle (the Fifth and Ninth Doctors especially). Donna definitely falls into the former category and in the hands of Michalowski (who has never been accused of subtlety!) she springs from the page as a fully formed character, hilariously funny, armed with acerbic wit, ready to tackle anything that is thrown at her and almost fulfilling the Doctor’s role for large chunks of the book. Its an extremely vivid depiction (compare and contrast with the yawnsome handling of Amy Pond in the books) and throughout you can hear Catherine Tate saying the lines (‘Go on, Sister Wendy, what is it?’).

Within moments Donna is being bossy, funny, picking fights and tossing pop culture references at anyone who gets in her way (‘That supposed to be some kind of insult? ‘Cos where I come from, sunshine, that wouldn’t get you on Trisha, never mind Jeremy Kyle!’). She nearly coughs up a furball when somebody calls her the Doctor’s pet. Donna genuinely loves art and had a copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at home but she thinks that you have to earn the title and not just slap random things together and call it art. She thinks of herself as an Ambassador for Earth (Lord help us!) and spells her name TROUBLE. The Doctor describes her as a priceless treasure when she is stolen along with the exhibit. She has never been this far away from the Doctor before on a world that feels so alien. These robots creeped her out because they looked too much like living things. If they look more like robots then she might be more comfortable around them – the novel goes on to explore her prejudices in a very creative way. For Donna psychological abuse is being kidnapped and locked up without a television. She shows great compassion for one of the bimbots when its spine is snapped and is determined to point out that it is murder when Ogmunee shoots it. As a child Donna was teased relentlessly about the colour of her hair and so becoming a Goddess for that very reason almost makes up for it! For one silly moment she wished that her mum (who always told her to stop being so sensitive) was her to see her being treated to deification. There’s a very telling moment where Mesanth compares Donna’s non reaction to her kicking a door to her more emotional reaction to the destruction of the bimbot on Karris – Donna’s emotions very much depend on appearances. The Doctor grins at her down-to-Earthness and how she often misses the bigger picture but gets the details right. Donna is not a racist because she judges by appearance and not race (‘Its only natural to see something that doesn’t look human and doesn’t act human and assume it doesn’t think human’). She acknowledges that her shortcomings aren’t how things should be and that we are only as ignorant as we choose to be. Donna is a quick thinker when she is in danger and thinks up the awesome plan of everybody squeezing into an escape pod, Mother wrenching it free of its defective release mechanism and ride atop as they fly away from the exploding spaceship! Travelling with the Doctor scares the willies out of Donna but she’s learnt to question what is normal with hi and to question her core beliefs in a way that she feels has made her a better person.

Great Ideas: Mother is our main robot character and is described as looking like a high speed collision between a truck and a steel mill (you can check her out yourself on the splendid cover!). She was created as a product of war but tried to damage herself so she would be of no use to them, literally attempting to commit suicide so she wouldn’t have to kill. Through Mother we experience a robot with feelings and the emotional/thematic crux of the story. Promechanicals are friendly types that harp on about robotic rights. The Cult of the Shining Darkness on the other hand are a bunch who refuse to believe that machines intelligences are sentient They consider anything non organic to simply be a collection of spare parts. The Shining Darkness is a time when they fear that the machines will rise up against organics and slaughter them all. The people of Jaffee collect religions like ornaments and they often have two or three mutually incompatible ones going at the same time! They are too smart and rational to actually believe in any of them and so consider the pinnacle of sophistication to believe in something utterly without any proof. It was easy to believe in things where there was evidence but took a special sort of person to devote themselves to something when there isn’t a scrap of corroboration. They especially love the idea of Heaven because you could make it as fabulous or as strange as you wanted and no one could prove you wrong! Sacred artefacts are great because you can lose them and then spend ages going on quests trying to find them again. These sequences are simply divine, like we have tripped into the Hitchhikers Guide with a wonderfully silly parody of religious zealots who can change their faith on a whim. Like Adams at his best there is a serious meaning here amongst the fluff. Unfortunately the artefact that was left on Jaffee by the cult was tossed in the junk cupboard when a more interesting religion came along! Junk is a planetoid where you can unload all your obsolete technology and it is crushed and catapulted into the sun. For the surface think of the opening scenes of Wall-E with towers of junk. Crusher (he crushes the junk up) and Chuck (he tosses it into the sun) make an impressively macho entrance like two killer Transformers but they turn out to be a pair of bitching mincers who let their squabbles interfere with their work! Weiou with his cartoon display emotions and excitable manner is another gorgeous invention. Given the right resources machinekind can reproduce at a much greater rate than organics (‘But they haven’t’ points out the Doctor). The Cult have an ideal hidey hole inside a black hole where they can plot and put their plan into action. There’s a really exciting sequence where the Sword of Justice is on a collision course with the Torch and Donna’s only escape route (the TARDIS) has been blown into space! ‘Every home should have one’ says one character about the robots and it evokes a feel of how black women were treated in the 50s. Li’ian is revealed to be Cult member and in an unexpected moment shoots who we thought was our central villain, Garaman, right between the eyes! Her plan is to take control of all the mechanicals via the Mechanet and use them as an army to subdue organics and ensure that their warped view of reality endures. They want everybody to be frightened of machines so they will wipe them out. Boonie placed an antimatter bomb inside Mother as a final solution to stop the cult if all else fails. I really like how the Doctor comments that even though their plans have been scuppered they cannot wipe out the Cult because it’s a state of mind and not an organisation. As much as I hate the BNP if we managed to snuff out their political party there will still be racists out there. The Doctor sums up this books moral: ‘People being people. That’s normal.’

Funny Bits:
  • ‘I have to find a friend!’ ‘You’ll be wanting the companion district then…’
  • ‘A bit Scooby Doo, isn’t it?’ – if only he would go on to be this smart in Judgement of the Judoon where that is literally the case!
  • ‘Earthons!’ ‘We’re called humans’ ‘How confusing!’ – I love the way that Michalowski is constantly taking the piss out of science fiction conventions in this book. Donna also names the Solar System and the Sun (‘how quaint!’) and suggests that because they are invaded all the time that humanity are ‘major players!’
  • There is a forty year old childlike man…is the author taking the mickey out of the fact that every NSA has to contain a child of some kind as an identification figure?
  • ‘You never hear of the second rate ones going mad though, do you? Its always the geniuses.’
  • Donna winging her way into becoming a deity is as priceless as you can imagine! Michalowski has really though about how Catherine Tate would bring this scene to life and its all in there; dramatic pauses, mouth hanging open and sudden bursts of emotion! What a shame The Ginger Goddess never made it to the screen! The Doctor: ‘I think she’s getting ready for panto season.’
  • The Mechanet: ‘Generally its just full of nerds and losers complaining that machinekind isn’t what it used to be or circulating rumours about an organic agenda’ Naughty, naughty Michalowski! Hahaha! Even Weiou has been looking at specialist sites that make his display blush!
  • Weiou: ‘Explosions always make me feel bilious!’ and ‘So we’re all dead and this is the final upload?’

Notes: ‘Don’t use Huon particles for anything, do you?’ the Doctor asks as Donna is beamed away.

Result: Nothing made of circuits and cogs could really feel, could it? Why is it when Star Trek tries to humanise machines it comes across as a preachy sermon but when Doctor Who tackles exactly the same theme its more of a charming fairytale? I’m putting it down to Shining Darkness having a fantastic sense of humour so that despite having a very serious point to make it is always a joy to read regardless. Michalowski packs his book full of silly, quirky, funny touches and whips up a crazy, colourful corner of the universe for the Doctor and Donna to have a spin around. Within its chucklesome exterior is a very serious message and a touching exploration of prejudice proving that the NSAs can tackle important themes and yet still keep things light and readable. By making the victims of hate crimes robots the author can tackle the subject of racism in a censored and creative way. I love all the idiosyncratic robotic creatures that we meet along the way and the author has the voices of the Doctor and Donna so perfect its as though he had created the characters himself. Donna in particular is expertly handled and learns some valuable lessons from this adventure. It’s a genuinely lovely piece of work that wouldn’t be at all out of place next to Mad Dogs and Englishmen and The Tomorrow Windows in the EDA range. I got through this in record time and I don’t think there was a point where a smile left my face, this is a book which evokes pure sunshine: 9/10

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Apollo 23 written by Justin Richards

Plot: The Doctor and Amy investigate sinister happenings on the moon where prisoners are being treated in a mind altering fashion…

Nutty Professor: Considering the lack of material he must have had to write this book with it is astonishing that Justin Richards manages to get the eleventh Doctor as accurate as he does here, right down to his quirky, effete mannerism and rapid dialogue. He hasn’t had lunch for centuries and so is delighted at the prospect. He hadn’t died for a couple of months now but found that whenever it did it always gave one hell of an appetite. I love how he can turn up on the Moon in his ridiculous goldfish bowl helmet and tell the first person they stumble across that he’s ‘just visiting.’ The Doctor has an out of control comb over even though he isn’t going bald! He doesn’t look old enough to have a doctorate in anything but its suggested it would be wit and sarcasm if anything. Polishing up on his infiltration techniques should be high on his priorities because when Walinski says he doesn’t look like a liar the Doctor replies ‘good liars don’t.’ The Doctor does the honourable thing and drags Devenish’s body back to Texas and loses what he thinks is his last chance to save Amy. ‘Don’t ask, just believe’ is just about the best reaction you could ever have to the Doctor. He rubs of on people and inspires them. He’ll d 6o impossible things before breakfast and still have time to make the toast. Wonderfully he screams ‘Geronimo!’ as the shuttle ascends! The unforgiving Doctor has no qualms whatsoever about forcing Garrett out into the deadly blackness of space and even has an acidic sixth Doctor retort for the moment (‘He went outside. He might be gone some time’). At one point Amy has been so clearly taken over that I’m pleased that Richards didn’t even pretend that the Doctor was convinced for a second or keep the pretence going for longer than one scene. The Doctor trying to shake hands with one of the sweaty Talerian appendages is very funny. 

Scots Tart: Oh Amy Pond. This is what I consider to be her first novel (like The Clockwise Man it makes sense for the range editor to kick start a new era) and so this was the first chance to see how she worked out in print. Not very well is the honest answer. Its not Justin Richards’ fault because he tries his best with so little to work with but the Amy Pond of season five is simply too dull and vacuous to transplant into a novel with any great success. Moffatt might have been working in some masterplan wherein her life is beguilingly revealed to her at the end of the season but that means for 13 episodes she is a blank slate. Karen Gillan is a fine actress and she tried her utmost with what she was given but frankly the only moments that I felt anything for Amy during that season was when I didn’t like her – when she was trying to cheat on the man who would give up anything to be with her (the lovely Rory). Otherwise she was just a feisty redhead who seemed unperturbed by everything around her and we’d already had a superbly characterised, complex fiery redhead in the series (the fabulous Donna) and unfortunately she just didn’t match up. Amy is Scottish and so she is used to rain, that’s about as engaging as her characterisation gets here. She is so lacking in character she ponders about tea and spiders and even takes a doze whilst the place is going to hell! There is literally nothing for Richards to grab hold of and elaborate so he sends her to sleep instead. It takes Amy ages to realise that she has walked into a trap of Reeve’s making – for somebody with such a smart mouth she can pretty dense at times! When she meets the prisoners who are emaciated and exhausted she exhibits a moment of compassion! It can be done! Amy has been mind-wiped! And we can tell the difference how? ‘She shouldn’t just be a pretty face, you know!’ says the Doctor. Ahem.

Great Ideas: Richards has been at this game for too long to not know how to open a novel and his opening line of ‘twenty minutes before he died’ entices the audiences interest immediately. Barbinger spends his last moments in such a mundane fashion I wanted to jump into the book and warn him that he was about to croak! The set up of the astronaut turning up at a burger bar and Barbinger dying of asphyxiation in exactly the same way that he would were he standing on the moon is intriguing (‘from Earth to the Moon, talk about a giant step for mankind!’). Recidivist prisoners are being experimented on on the Moon, they have all resisted conventional attempts to rehabilitate them. They were sent so far because of the dangerous, illicit government knowledge they have obtained during their crimes. It’s a fascinating premise and the Doctor’s response of ‘you do it up here on the dark side of the Moon for convenience or because its morally and ethically wrong?’ touches on a captivating argument. The Keller impulses (The Mind of Evil) are being washed away and the Doctor asks ‘who gave you the right to decide which ones are bad and which ones are normal?’ At this point in the novel I thought we were in for a substantial piece about the wrongs of mistreating prisoner and the psychological ramifications of what they were doing. When the argument comes to the scientist suggesting chillingly that the brilliant minds of critically ill patients can be preserved in the minds of these criminals the surface of a whole different book was scratched. Perpetual regeneration at the cost of a life. The brain abhors a vacuum so whatever they take out has to be filled with something. As the aliens are transplanted into that gap it is described as the scuttling claws of a rat creeping inside. Brrr. With a Richards book you can always count on the nuts and bolts of the novel making sense and he adequately explains why the base was sabotaged and why one of the patients is talking in a bizarre code. Apollo 23 is the dilapidated 30 year old standby space shuttle that flies the Doctor to the Moon! Naturally he thinks its ‘fab!’ There’s a terrific action sequence in zero gravity as the Doctor grapples with the saboteur that would have look gorgeous on screen. The image of the Talerian that literally explodes into the vacuum of space is an enduring one.

Embarrassing Bits: The guest characters are generally as functional as the prose and fulfil their roles but never break out of being ciphers. I couldn’t tell you anything about any of them if you prompted me now and I only finished the book half an hour ago. Sometimes Richards tries to make the Doctor too eccentric and it falls flat on its face (‘Doc is a dwarf. I am not!’). Is it just me or is this the quickest rocket launch known to mankind? The Doctor’s scheme to stick the ‘Pond Water’ (the minds of the people who have been taken over) into the sprinkler system and have their personalities literally rain down on them is so insubstantial and ridiculous I had to put the book down for a second to recover. It smacks of the similarly brainless solution to New Earth when the Doctor creates a cure-all and has the zombies touch each other to ‘pass it on!’ ‘The brain should be able to recognise its own mind print and just take the data that belongs to it. Like recognising your car in amongst hundreds in a supermarket car park!’ When I heard the books might be dumbing down a tad I never anticipated a climax quite this backwards. The Talerians then show up for the B-Movie climax wobbling their slimy, pustulous hides about and exploding about the joint like cut price Slitheen. They even have names like Commander Raraarg!

Notes: How odd that an Impossible Astronaut should turn up at the beginning of this novel in an incongruous location. It gets even weirder when the Doctor spends time in a Texan desert and fiddles about with a US space shuttle! I don’t know how much input Steven Moffatt had into the books during this period but there are a number of remarkable similarities to his season six opener. If that is the case then Justin Richards should slip a feather into his cap. Mind you the author isn’t above nabbing elements from other New Series episodes and the raining on the moon sequence felt very familiar (Smith and Jones). He mentions a penal wing on the Moon that he would be locked up in in the future (Frontier in Space). The Doctor didn’t think there would be a direct link between the Earth and the Moon until T-Mat got going (The Seeds of Death). I liked the mention of Control marking a crossover between the paperbacks and the hardbacks. Fortunately those in the US are in the know because they have read up UNIT and Torchwood files about alien incursions.

Funny Bits:
  • ‘From the tip of Edgewayz to the Bakov Beyonned!’ – where the Doctor has visited in his travels!
  • The time delay sequence is really funny and must have been hard to pull off in print. Without the actors to bring the dialogue to life Richards has to rely on the reader to pace the scene and I found that he interrupted the Doctor and Amy at just the right points to get the best giggles. Amy is slagging off the military when the Doctor tried to interrupt and inform her that he is sitting with some of the most important military bigwigs in America! Her response when it comes…’I think soldiers are great! Lovely…uniforms.’

Result: An engaging read for the most part but not half the book it could have been. What a shame that Apollo 23 has to become an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style alien invasion because there is clearly a lot of dramatic and psychological potential in the abused prisoner scenario that Richards sets up. The prose is the epitome of this authors functionalism and is so bare boned for the most part that it could practically be called a screenplay. Richards is too much of a good writer to botch any novel but here he wastes so much potential by reducing what is a very dark and promising first half to an archetypal base under siege/invasion story with barely a glimmer of wit or invention in the concluding half. The characters barely register and Amy maintains her position as one of the most vacuous companions the Doctor has ever travelled with but Richard’s depiction of Smith’s Doctor is right on the money and provides some terrific moments of levity. I wanted more intelligent discussion and less blobby monsters and it frustrates to have a carrot dangled in from of you and then snatched away. Still I can’t complain too much about a book that lets the Doctor drive a space shuttle, march across the lunar surface with blue murder in his eyes and inadvertently cause a whole bunch of monsters to spontaneously combust! Not a bad start to the 11th Doctor novels but the best is yet to come: 6/10

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Judgement of the Judoon written by Colin Brake

Plot: The Doctor, a young investigator and Judoon Commander become embroiled in the machinations at New Jupiter…

Mockney Dude: I’m not going to lie to you…you’re not going to get the most dense characterisation of the Doctor in a Colin Brake novel. You’re just not. Saying that he manages to write a fair intimation of the character as seen on TV with lots of quirks and ticks that match David Tennant’s portrayal. Apparently his eccentricity accentuates his natural goods (I wouldn’t argue with the last bit). It must be an NSA if the Doctor gets saddled with teenage sidekick but lets be honest he’s a big kid himself so he works on their level! He deals in crisis management without the management. He loves a good mystery and he loves four even more. A Judoon companion? Who would have thought that could ever have been as effective as it is here? I think it’s a great idea and I’m willing to bet that a lot less people would be willing to point the finger at the Doctor on his travels if he was backed up by a grunting, leather clad rhinoceros! I love the way he provides such violent distractions while the Doctor gets up to no good in the background. The Doctor is easy to like a fits in anywhere. There’s something secretive, lonely and grief stricken and lonely about him for all he tries to cover it with smiles and smart alec comments. The Doctor finds it easy to tar all of one species with the same brush despite the fact that he is always meeting the exception to the rule. Trustworthy and full of honour. He can convince you that you have had a conversation and come to a decision when he has done all of the talking! Beneath his energy and relentless enthusiasm there is a sadness and bitterness. With a book as predictable as this it is a relief that at least the Doctor is privy to each twist and turn because I couldn’t bear it if he was this stupid. The Doctor had found good company on New Jupiter and the TARDIS feels so empty without a companion. He has had the feeling for some time that change was coming, something lurking in his near future. Something big, terrible and inevitable…

Great Ideas: The Judoon are thorough but far from gentle and their sledgehammer tactics are a cause for much drama (leaving hull breach in a ship after cutting into it for access) and humour (the Commander crashing through a door rather than walking through it!). They always get their man but its usually at a pretty high price. 2487 and the human race is established amongst the stars, colonies scattered about and hyperspace making travel over incredibly long distances commonplace and swift. The King of Elvis spaceport is right next to hyperspace nexus point on an otherwise uninviting world and has grown from an automated fuel dump to sprawling city state with a permanent population. It’s a place of contrasts; of wealth and glamour, grime and crime. This is a fantastic (and authentic) Doctor Who setting with visits to casinos, grimy Downtown cityscapes and mafia style organisations. It makes you ponder wistfully. what this could have been if it hadn’t been quite so castrated by the author and the tone of the series. It’s a spaceport of humans, aliens, robots and androids and if you squint hard enough you can see Roger Langridge going to town with his depiction of it! I loved the Courier exploding because I genuinely did not think the book would ever go that far! Nikki might not be the most sophisticated character in town (and her character spec is a barely concealed reworking of Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer mixing private investigations with her father with martial arts) but she proves to be resourceful and quite engaging by the novels close especially in her dealings with the hilarious Judoon Commander. Thank goodness she appeared in a Colin Brake novel because I could only imagine how she would have fared in the hands of Terrance Dicks (casual rape, probably), Mick Lewis (eaten) or Lawrence Miles (deconstructed and turn out to be the Time Lord weapon that was needed to break the deadlock seal on the Time War). Is this the first time the TARDIS has been described as lost luggage? The Invisible Assassin is a virus coded to kill the Widow – I never saw that one coming! 100 bombs are due to go off at Terminal 13 which might sound like an act of desperation to inject some tension on the authors part but it really works, especially after one goes off and kills three Judoon and then another goes off almost immediately afterwards. It feels (for the first time in the book) that anything could happen. After everything being so obvious for so long there are a number of great moments when all the secrets are out in the open. I really thought there was going to be a touching reconciliation between Uncle and Hope (its that sort of book) but instead he dies in the most ironic of fashions (killed by the virus that he unknowingly sent after his daughter) and slips away with the Doctor pointing out the error of his ways and thinking his daughter must have hated him. Redemption simply isn’t an option. For once the Doctor’s ‘I’m so sorry’ feels heartfelt and not just a catchphrase. Salter’s involvement is well hidden beneath the more obvious twists and he makes a number of salient points about how it is ‘always about money’ and that if the Doctor is above such things then ‘the rest of us live in the real world.’ It might be another insurance scam but it does have some bite. Hope also dies off-screen (so to speak) and unmourned.

Embarrassing Bits: The tone of this novel is more akin to the adventures of the Famous Five than Doctor Who at times especially when we open with the case of the Invisible Assassin on the Spaceship Tintin! New Memphis sounds quirky but I’m starting to wonder if there’s a New Everything in the future. There is a massively unsubtle parody of the Heathrow Terminal Five crisis but at least it is part of the plot and not just a tasteless gag. Brake has this annoying habit of introducing characters and settings and describing absolutely everything about them in the first couple of paragraphs before they speak/anything happens. We literally learn nothing more about them than what is fed to us in that primary description. I understand that I am not the target audience for these books but there is such a thing as talking down to children and there are plenty of extremely engaging kids books out there that don’t patronise them in this fashion (there are plenty of NSAs that don’t do it too as exemplified by most of the novels since this was published). The Jupiter Investigation Agency reminded me strongly of The 3 Investigators novels I used to read as a little boy. If anybody hadn’t figured out that Hope was the Widow and Nikki’s father was Moret then I would seriously question whether you should be reading novels at all. I’ve never known Crime Lords that are so easy to make an appointment with! Don’t they have underhanded Empires to run? There’s plenty of references to deadlock seals, kronkburgers and psychic paper just in case we didn’t know what era we are in! Frustratingly Brake has his characters contradict themselves from paragraph to paragraph – its especially evident when Uncle wishes he could have the same working relationship with his daughter that Nikki has with her father than then exclaims that he wants her to have nothing to do with his sordid business.

Funny Bits:
  • ‘At least something works around here…’ – black humour as the Courier spontaneously combusts and the sprinkler system manages to cool things down!
  • One character ponders how the Doctor could talk so fast and for so long and say nothing!
  • ‘Service is swift. Thank you’ says the Judoon Commander to a taxi driver after his horns have torn through his roof!
  • In a laugh out loud moment the Commander cracks open a wall with his massive horn to rescue Nikki! He’s a really useful guy to have around!
  • ‘Why is everything deadlock sealed these days?’ Good point!
  • I chuckle at the observation that the bombs might have made less damage than the Judoon seeking them out.
  • It’s a pat ending for sure but I was laughing my head off at the thought of the Commander joining the Jupiter Detective Agency! Can you imagine that beast going undercover?

Result: I just don’t know how to sum up my reaction to Judgement of the Judoon which has many fine elements but is constantly held back by the childish writing voice of the author that makes any attempts drama fall flat. If you thought that Terrance Dicks spelt things out (but he does it in all the best ways) then you haven’t seen anything! I don’t care if the target audience is an intelligent 12 year old…any kid worth their salt is not going to be stumped by this imminently guessable plot with every twist signposted. You get the feeling that there is a much darker, sleazier novel to be told in this genuinely great location. Instead what we get is something more akin to a PG13 James Bond crossed with Enid Blyton with a sprinkling of Scooby Doo (it was Uncles daughter all along!)! Saying all that Colin Brake has one very special weapon that he deploys to his full advantage. The Judoon Commander is a fabulous character and lifts the book every time he appears with his honking laughter and sledgehammer approach to everything. I wanted him to skip in the TARDIS at the end with the Doctor. After 200 odd pages of light prose and retarded plotting the book pulls off a coup in the conclusion with a handful of dark and exciting moments. I feel as if I should be harder on this novel but it does try and aim high even though it is restricted by the writing voice and the tone of the book range. Brake’s books are improving successively but that doesn’t mean this is anything to shout home about: 6/10